Sending them back into danger: Experts blast E.U. plan to deport refugees to Turkey, calling it illegal and immoral

"Member states are literally washing their hands of millions of lives," says rights lawyer on Europe deportations

Published April 11, 2016 8:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Santi Palacios)
(AP/Santi Palacios)

Europe is deporting refugees en masse back to the Middle East, where their lives could be endangered. Legal experts have condemned the plan, and say it is illegal, not to mention immoral.

In March, the E.U. and Turkey reached an agreement dictating that all undocumented migrants that cross from Turkey into Greece after March 20 will be deported back to Turkey.

In early April, the deportations began: Greece started sending hundreds of refugees and migrants at a time to Turkey.

The European Commission insists there is an adequate legal basis for the deal, but many experts disagree.

Sarah Kay, a human rights lawyer who has analyzed the agreement, told Salon that the plan violates both international and European law.

"Collective expulsion is unlawful; expulsion without access to asylum process is unlawful; adherence to humanitarian standards, which Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. refugee agency have denounced, is mandatory; and a shoot to kill policy for border crossing is unlawful," she explained.

Kay says legal experts and the European commissioner for human rights have been expressing concern with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, which made the deal with Turkey, since the negotiations first began.

"The issue is that, besides Tusk, member states are literally washing their hands of millions of lives," Kay explained.

"It seems the E.U. is more interested in displacing the crisis than facing it with everything it has at its disposal, and is using Frontex as means of enforcement," she added, referring to the E.U. border agency.

"One-for-one" swap

The U.N. has also said the agreement may be illegal. Peter Sutherland, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for international migration and development, told the BBC the agreement may violate international law.

"If there is any question of collective deportations without individuals being given the right to claim asylum, that is illegal," Sutherland noted.

As part of the agreement, the E.U. says that, for every Syrian refugee it deports, it will take in one Syrian refugee who applied for asylum and did not try to enter Europe without approval.

Even if this pledge is upheld, legal experts say it has troubling legal and moral implications.

In an analysis of the E.U.-Turkey agreement, Steve Peers, a professor of law at the University of Essex, explained that the justification for the plan is contradictory, and that the order to deport all undocumented migrants back to Turkey "is a flagrant breach of E.U. and international law."

"The idea of a ‘one-for-one’ swap of irregular migrants for resettled Syrians has been controversial, but does not raise legal issues as such," Peers continued. "However, I certainly share the view of those who find a de facto ‘trade in human misery’ morally dubious."

Short shrift for other refugees

Peers added that he found it "even more disturbing that some Member States want to arrange for expedited returns to Libya."

Refugees from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, Morocco and more, in the meantime, were given short shrift in the agreement.

The U.N. estimates that there are roughly 2.7 million Afghan refugees and another almost 1 million internally displaced Afghans, along with more than 400,000 internally displaced Libyans.

The U.S. and NATO wars in Afghanistan and Libya are responsible for much of this displacement, but the E.U.-Turkey agreement only pledges resettlement for up to 18,000 Syrians.

Sarah Kay, the human rights lawyer, also pointed out that Western countries have labeled Afghans fleeing the war as "economic migrants," not refugees, meaning they are not guaranteed the same legal protections. This is despite recent reports that show the violence in Afghanistan in 2015 was the deadliest since 2009.

Worst refugee crisis since WWII

The world is witnessing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. There are approximately 60 million war refugees around the globe today, in what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has called "an all-time high as violence and persecution increase."

Syria has been particularly hard hit. More than half of the country's roughly 22 million people have been displaced, and almost 5 millions Syrians are registered with the U.N. refugee agency.

Neighboring Middle East countries have buckled under the pressure of millions of refugees.

The tiny nation of Lebanon accepted more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Approximately one-fifth of Lebanon's entire population now consists of Syrian refugees.

Jordan accepted more than 600,000, meaning about 8 percent of its population consists of Syrian refugees.

Turkey, a much larger country, has taken around 2 million refugees.

Meanwhile, Western countries have been remarkably unsympathetic to their plight. The same Western governments that have spent billions of dollars intervening and arming and training rebels in Syria have been overwhelmingly antagonistic to Syrians fleeing the violence.

The U.S. has only promised to take 10,000 refugees — and has accepted just over 1,000 to date. Moreover, a majority of American governors have called for barring refugees from entering their states.

Europe's response has been similarly antagonistic. Most European countries, excluding Germany, have been hesitant to accept refugees, and have only taken several thousand. Germany alone took more than 1 million refugees in 2015.

Kay noted the irony that many European countries are claiming they do not have the resources to deal with the refugee influx, but are then deploying enormous resources in order to stop the very same refugee influx.

The U.S. has also deported Central American refugees fleeing extreme violence in their home countries. The U.K. is doing the same with refugees from South Asia and the Middle East. Human rights experts say these deportations are "disturbing" and likely illegal.


Much of the debate surrounding the legality of the agreement rests on whether or not Turkey can be considered a "safe third country" for refugees.

Legal experts say it is most certainly not.

"It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the E.U. did not try to ensure beyond doubt that the deal was legal, by putting in place some sort of effective monitoring of Turkish commitments as regards the treatment of refugees and migrants, in particular asking Turkey to fully apply the Geneva Convention to all refugees as a condition of the deal," Steve Peers explained.

He noted that Turkey does not apply the Geneva Convention to non-Europeans.

Non-refoulement is the international law principle that says a victim of persecution must not be forcibly returned to the persecutor. In the case of asylum-seekers, it means refugees must not be forced to return to the violence they fled.

Human rights groups say Turkey has been deporting hundreds of refugees back to Syria on a daily basis. Sending Syrian refugees back to Turkey, therefore, could endanger their lives, violating non-refoulement.

"Legal obligations under the U.N. Refugee Convention go way beyond non-refoulement, and even that the E.U. is failing to uphold," Sarah Kay told Salon.

She said the deal violates the European Convention on Human Rights. "Turkey is in blatant breach," Kay explained, "and so is every state engaging in collective expulsion."

Kay also expressed concern that, even with the violation of non-refoulement and other issues aside, the plan "places on Turkey a burden that it is possible the country does not have the resources to face." Europe has significantly more resources, but has refused to use them to help more refugees.


The agreement, and Western governments' antagonism toward refugees, has resulted in enormous pushback.

"There is outright defiance of this agreement already, has existed for well before the agreement was signed," Sarah Kay explained. "People on the ground in the Balkans risk arrest for helping out refugees, for the very reasons I mentioned."

"There are a 10,000 estimated children unaccounted for and at the mercy of right-wing vigilante groups," she added.

Far-right nationalist groups have organized enormous anti-immigrant rallies throughout Europe, and have frequently attacked refugees.

"I have been screaming for years that we need organizing on the ground," Kay said.

"It took us months to have legal assistance in Calais to process as many refugees as possible, and talk them out of going to the U.K.," she said referring to a large refugee camp in France. "A judge then force-evacuated the camp."

"There are incredible volunteers in Greece, but nothing is enough," she stressed, noting that there is not nearly enough support from European governments.

The European commissioner has used cautious language but has become more outspoken about the agreement.

Kay said there may be legal pushback, given there would have to be a judicial decision to suspend the deal.

European courts are working on the issue, she explained, "but the political pressure is so intense — and if Greece crashes under the weight, it will result in other non-E.U. agreements."

"For the time being, we need interim measures." Doctors Without Borders has tried to helped, but it does not have enough resources to assist the refugees.

Kay lamented, "Every time I think we've reached rock bottom in the political response to the crisis, someone at the European Commission finds something more infuriating and inhuman to do."

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

MORE FROM Ben Norton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Doctors Without Borders Europe Refugee Crisis Refugees Turkey